Saturday, January 2, 2016

Revisionist backlash

What better movie to watch on New Year's Day than one where the clock striking midnight figures prominently into the plot?

Actually, that had no bearing on my decision to rent Cinderella along with Spy when I ran out on New Year's Eve to restock our refrigerator. Neither did the fact that we could watch it with my older son while the younger one was napping, making it a two-birds-with-one-stone affair -- though he ultimately tuned out after about 45 minutes. The real motivations were that a) I could keep the movies for an extra night because of the holiday, and b) I'd been pressing my wife to see it for about a month now, because I'd heard everyone talk about how good it was.

After seeing it, my only conclusion about the strength of the praise is that it's revisionist backlash.

Oh, this is an okay movie. More than okay, maybe. But John Waters' second favorite movie of the year? What?

It seems like people are sick of seeing Disney make its movies overly politically correct, and are happy just to see revisionism kicked to the curb for a change. And Waters has certainly never been a fan of political correctness.

To be sure, I'd heard that this was an old-fashioned, straightforward telling of this familiar fairy tale. However, I didn't expect it to be quite so ... boring. Apparently, this is what people liked about it.

Disney's recent movies have tended to be ... not so boring. Or at least, not so straightforward in their approach to the storytelling. Hits like the much-discussed Tangled and the uber-phenomenon Frozen both show Disney bending over backwards to make sure that the female characters have their own agency, that they do as much prince-saving as being saved by princes, and ultimately that they don't need no man. While those movies are not outright revisionism, you can find an example of outright revisionism only last year, when Disney told Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of its villain, Maleficent. And despite some flaws in the presentation, Maleficent the movie ultimately did some interesting things with its choice to view the title character sympathetically, to make her the victim of male hatred. (At the very least, it was giving us mature stuff that probably went over the heads of its youngest viewers.)

Cinderella is not like that at all. Cinderella is straighter than an arrow. It gives us pretty much exactly the story as we're accustomed to hearing it. Except for the fact that Kenneth Branagh's 2015 version is 27 minutes longer than the 1950 animated version, I would not even be surprised to hear that the story beats are apportioned out at exactly the same time intervals over the course of the narrative.

And this movie was a hit, especially relative to Maleficent, which had a much more tepid critical response (Cinderella's 67 on Metacritic puts it firmly in the green of "generally favorable reviews," while Maleficent's 56 leaves it in the murky orange of "mixed or average reviews").

So is this the artistic equivalent of a politician "getting back to straight talk?" Are audiences so frustrated with all this "liberal mumbo jumbo" that they just want someone who "tells it like it is?" And does "telling it like it is" entail female characters who, while not lacking entirely in agency, are happy enough just to be demure?

Another benefit I noted to the approaches of these other movies, particularly Tangled -- they're a lot more fun. A piece of wisdom I gleaned about Cinderella while seeing it through my son's eyes is just how damn sad the story is. First Ella's mother dies, which I had to explain to him and see how it impacted him. Then after another five minutes or so, her father dies, as another separate, elongated episode. Frozen at least had the decency to kill off both parents in one quick scene, showing nothing more than a ship sinking in the distance. Then of course Ella is subjected to a series of indignities at the hands of her wicked stepsisters and stepmother. By 30 minutes in you wonder if anything happy will ever happen in this movie, and that was about the time when my son said "Daddy, you know I don't like movies where things that happen are sad."

It caused me to think about Tangled, where no characters actually die until the very end, and then it's just the bad guy. That story gets its melancholy from a girl being kidnapped and her parents thinking she's dead, but the whole time we know she's alive and (basically) well inside a tower. Sure, that's kind of the exception as most Disney movies feature at least one dead parent, though usually only one. But the way Cinderella drags these things out and forces kids to focus on them is just kind of perverse.

I said my son checked out around 45 minutes, which was especially interesting because that's just when the magical stuff started to really happen -- the pumpkin turning into a carriage and whatnot. Well, when he came back to the movie later, it was when the prince's father this time was in bed, dying. So if you're keeping track at home, that's three dead parents of characters we like. No wonder my son quickly checked out again.

If your revisionism makes for a more fun movie and also gives the women a little bit of additional responsibility for the outcome of their own lives, by all means, revise these stories all you want.

And go sell your straight talk to somebody else.

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